4 Ways Writing Improves Your Relationship With Yourself

Writing—especially the writing of stories—is ultimately a relationship with oneself. It is true that we write to communicate with others. Perhaps that is even the foremost conscious motivation sometimes. But communication itself necessitates a relationship, and what we are trying to communicate is ourselves—that unfolding inner dialogue between the Self and the self, the observer and the observed, the unconscious and the conscious, the Muse and the Recorder.

You must have a relationship with your stories before your readers can, and really this is a relationship with yourself. In recognizing this, writing becomes both an investigative tool for getting to know yourself better and a vast playground for exploration and experimentation on a deeply personal level. Depth psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen points out:

Creative work comes out of an intense and passionate involvement—almost as if with a lover, as one (the artist) interacts with the “other” to bring something new into being. This “other” may be a painting, a dance form, a musical composition, a sculpture, a poem or a manuscript, a new theory or invention, that for a time is all-absorbing and fascinating.

Particularly in this ongoing period of quarantine and isolation, it can be a tremendously rewarding process to use writing to improve your relationship with yourself. Whether you live alone right now or in a crowded house, the one person you cannot escape, the one person who will always be there for you, is you.

Too often, I think we underestimate this person and our relationship with him or her. We’d rather distract ourselves or hang with someone else because limiting beliefs lead us to think this most intimate of all relationships is too flawed, too painful, too shallow. Isn’t this why writing sometimes scares us so badly we can barely sit at the computer? It is also, I believe, why most of us come to the page in the first place: this person within has something to say and so long as this communication comes out in the form of fun and colorful stories, we are willing to sit still and listen in ways we are rarely willing to offer during the rest of life.

The more we learn to listen to the self that appears on the page, the more we will become conscious of the things we are truly desiring to communicate—both to ourselves and eventually to readers. Writing becomes not just distraction, entertainment, or vocation—it becomes an ever-deepening relationship with life itself.

4 Ways Writing Improves Your Relationship With Yourself

Today, I want to talk about several ways in which our writing reveals itself as a relationship with ourselves—and how we can embrace and deepen our approaches to this magnificent form of self-exploration and self-expression.

1. Dreams, the Shadow, and the Unconscious

How can one not dream while writing? It is the pen which dreams. The blank page gives the right to dream.–Gaston Bachelard

I don’t know about you, but my actual night dreams are all but useless as story material. They’re an evocative smear of rehashed memories and crazy symbolism. My dream journal, although sometimes revealing, is usually more amusing than anything. More easily interpreted are the revelations I discover in my stories. Even more than my actual writing, my ability to consciously enter what I (and Robert Olen Butler) call the “dreamzone” is a mainline to my unconscious.

Your stories are “out loud” dreams. Even though you may exercise nominal control over their subject and direction, the best of them are effortless blasts of imagery and feeling straight up from your depths. Once your body of work is large enough for you to start recognizing patterns and cross-referencing them with the happenings of your own life, you will be able to mine your stories for some of your inner self’s deepest treasures.

It surprises me that more depth psychologists don’t reference and analyze stories in the same way they do dreams. Although I have always known my stories must offer an unwitting commentary about myself, it wasn’t until the last few years that I began to be able to recognize some unintended, occasionally even prescient, parallels between the things I was writing at a given time and the things that were either happening or about to happen in my own life.

More than that, your stories, your characters, and the scenarios and themes you write about are often revelations of the hidden parts of you—your shadow self, or the aspects of your personality you have not yet made conscious. Hidden emotions, desires, and even memories can surface in our writing, there for us to recognize if only we look. Some of our discoveries will be glorious and magical; others will be difficult and painful. But all are instructive.

2. Personal Archetypes and Symbols

Archetypal stories and characters—those that offer universal symbolism—resonate with people everywhere. Whenever you hear of a particularly popular story, you can be pretty sure the reason for its prevalent and enduring success is its archetypal underpinnings. This is a vastly useful bit of information if you want to write a successful story of your own. But it is also useful because an understanding of archetypes and symbolism can offer you a guide to translating you own inner hieroglyphs.

Consider your characters. What types of characters consistently appear in your stories? These are likely archetypes that are deeply personal to, representative of, and perhaps even transformative for you. Just as in dream analysis, it is useful to remember that every character is you. The wounded warrior, the damsel in distress, the sadistic villain—each represents a facet of your psychological landscape.

I’ve long thought we all have just one story to tell which we go on telling over and over in different ways. I’ve also heard it said that all authors have roughly a dozen actors in their playhouse—and we just keep recasting them in new stories. There’s truth to this. Certainly, I can recognize decided archetypes that perennially fascinate me however I try to dress them up in unique costumes from story to story.

As these patterns emerge over time, I get better at recognizing what they represent. Sometimes I am almost embarrassed to realize how much of myself I have bled onto the pages of my novels—secrets so intimate even I didn’t know them at the time I wrote them. Chuck Palahniuk observes aptly:

The act of writing is a way of tricking yourself into revealing something that you would never consciously put into the world. Sometimes I’m shocked by the deeply personal things I’ve put into books without realizing it.

Learning to speak the language of archetype and symbol can grant you tremendously exciting perception into your inner self. Stories that you loved when you wrote them, that meant one precious thing to you at the time of creation, can come to offer all new treasures even years after your first interactions with them.

3. Emotional and Hypothetical Exploration

Writing is also, always and ever, a conscious dialogue with ourselves. We put something onto the page; the page—that is to say, ourselves—responds. And the conversation takes off! Jean Shinoda Bolen again:

The “relationship” dialogue is then between the person and the work, from which something new emerges. For example, observe the process when a painter is engaged with paint and canvas. An absorbed interchange occurs: the artist reacts or is receptive to the creative accidents of paint and brush; she initiates actively with bold stroke, nuance, and color; and then, seeing what happens, she responds. It is an interaction; spontaneity combines with skill. It is an interplay between artist and canvas, and as a result something is created that never before existed.

Although we may not be fully conscious of everything we’re saying about ourselves when we first put a story to words, we almost always begin with some conscious intent. We are writing to experience something—perhaps something we’ve already experienced and want to recreate or relive, or perhaps something hypothetical that we wish to experiment with in a simulated way.

Even outrageous story events, such as fantasy battles or melodramatic love scenes, which we know are impossible or unlikely in reality, can still offer us the ability to symbolically create and process our own emotions. When we are angry, we often write scenes of passionate intensity. When we are stressed, we sometimes write horrifying but cathartic scenes or perhaps loving and comforting scenes.

Sometimes emotion pours out in ways that shock us, and when it does we have the opportunity to follow up and seek the root of something true and honest within ourselves that we perhaps have not fully acknowledged.

It is as if we say to the page: “Joy.” And a scene comes pouring out of us and shows a vivid dreamscape of what joy means to us. Or perhaps we simply wish to present a functional scene in which characters act out gratitude, trauma, love, or grief—and what we discover is our own sometimes stunning emotional response. We speak—and the page speaks back.

4. Logical and Creative Dialogues

I’ve always liked the idea of a dialogue between the left or logical brain and the right or creative brain. Both logic and creativity are wonderful in their unique ways, and both are intrinsic to a full realization of each other.

Of first importance is making sure neither the logical self nor the creative self is overpowering the other. Too often, the creative self is beaten down and starved by a dominant and cruel logic that criticizes every word creativity puts on the page. But creativity can also run wild, like an unruly child with no regard for the advice of its logical parent.

In order to appreciate and cultivate a relationship with both these aspects, we must make sure they respect each other enough to carry on a balanced back-and-forth conversation. This can happen moment by moment when we’re in the throes of writing—our creative minds manifesting ideas and our logical minds putting those ideas to words. But it can also be looked at as a larger dialogue in which different parts of the writing process become the domain of one half of the brain or the other.

I consider the early conception stages—those of imagining, daydreaming, and dreamzoning—to be deeply creative, with very little logical input. Then comes the more conscious brainstorming of outlining, in which I sculpt my dreams and logically work through plot problems. This is followed by writing itself, in which creativity is again brought front and center as I dream my ideas to life on the page. And finally, logic returns to trim the ragged edges during editing.

Understanding how we interact with these two vital halves of personality gives us an edge in honing all parts of our writing. Likewise, in honing our writing, we are given the opportunity to shape these two opposing aspects of ourselves. Very often, one or the other is undervalued or underdeveloped. In learning to respect and appreciate both—and to give both room to properly do their jobs, while maintaining communication with one another—we can refine their presence in our larger lives.

***

In so many ways, writing is the study of the soul. Stories allow us to study the collective soul of humanity. But our stories particularly allow us to study our own souls, to suss out their treasures, relieve their wounds, celebrate their uniqueness, and share their common features.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do you think your writing improves your relationship with yourself? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this post.

    In this post you said “I’ve long thought we all have just one story to tell which we go on telling over and over in different ways.” This struck a chord with me because in just the past day or two I came to realize that a story I’ve been working on for the past 18 years has the same plot line and similar character types as a story I just self-published as a novella and I don’t know why I’m so stuck on that type of story. I viewed this as WRONG and am berating myself for my lack of creativity.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The key is to tell it in different ways, of course. But I see nothing wrong with this, as long as we’re bringing awareness to what we’re doing and why. Realizing it may help you work through a block in your own life. Then who knows? You may find another story to tell after that after all. 😀

  2. “I’ve long thought we all have just one story to tell which we go on telling over and over in different ways.” How true! I heard someone say once that pastors have only one sermon, and they preach it over and over again throughout their ministries in different ways using different illustrations.

    I recently had the privilege of attending a writers retreat. Along with craft, marketing, social media, etc. components, there was a segment or two on “identity”. Who am I as a writer? What stories should I write? What is the theme of my life, and how can I write stories based upon that theme? It was quite revealing, exciting, and scary at the same time. But I’m so glad I attended. I now have insight into what stories and themes I’m called to write…and I can discard the rest.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      An affirmation I use sometimes is “Be a tree.” As in, trees don’t ask permission to be what they are or to try to make other people like them. They just are what they are. The fulfill the job they are here to do, faithfully, every day of their lives. We’re all like that. Perhaps the reason we are storytellers is because we each have that *one* story we’re supposed to tell. That’s our one job. We just have to be honest to realize that it’s *our* story we’re supposed to tell, not somebody else’s or what we think somebody else wants to hear. Be a tree. 🙂

  3. William Bartlett says

    Amazing post thank you. More of us than you’d might think have battled with depression and made it out victorious. Unfortunately there are some who didn’t survive the battle. A post like this could save a life. I love you and keep it up!

  4. MaryAnn Smith says

    Holy cow. Without getting all Zen-like and weird, this post has been an epiphany for me. I’ve struggled with my WIP for two years. Over the last few months as I’ve fleshed out my protagonist more and more, I’ve come to realize she is a mixture of who I am and who I wish I could have been. (I can’t believe I’m writing this; it’s weird admitting this.)

    I’ve been through about 14 iterations of an opening, all discarded because I think they’re crap. The rest of my story is mapped out, but the beginning has been a struggle. I think now, thanks to this post, I’ve figured out that I need to write it from the heart and to experience through my MC what I wanted to do as a teen, like her: run away.

    Ironically, today I was to be boarding a plane for a 10-day writing retreat in Ireland, but thanks to this stupid virus, I’m not going on the trip of my dreams. For 50 years, since I was 10, Ireland has been where I’ve wanted to escape to. It’s always been magical and mystical to me.

    I told my husband don’t be surprised if I stay, but I’ll send for my dogs. I was joking with him, of course, but in my mind I was thinking, “This is my chance to escape, to run away from the ordinary, if even for only 10 days.”

    Off to my WIP file to write this down before I lose my way. Again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s pretty amazing. Sorry to hear your trip was postponed. But sounds like you’re still traveling in your story at any rate. 🙂

  5. This is the right post at the right time. I’m increasingly realizing how much I avoid writing because I am not okay with who I am as a person. And this post helps me realize that writing is probably the very thing I need.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There is so much vulnerability in this comment. Good for you! I think you’re farther down the right path than you even realize. 🙂

  6. You’re definitely onto something here. I think the analysis part is very complex, and I also suspect that if everyone wrote fiction, Freud would have never messed with dream analysis. I find myself wondering what I would right if I sat down and as part of the conceptualization process I told myself I wanted the story to help dig into a particularly relationship problem in my life. I suspect I’d go into brain lock, but maybe not.

    I’d also say this article unmasked me. I’m a cad. In my heart of hearts, I love flitting from story concept to story concept, taking a wham, bam approach and just rolling in the creative drafting process. That’s a lot of fun, but I don’t get what I really want from my stories when I do that. These story relationships don’t leave he fun part and move onto the adult stage where all the work is. It’s scary, but important to look for stories I’m ready to have a long term relationship with, get them to the point where I’m ready to release them for the world. Then it’s totally appropriate to dump them like yesterday’s news and move onto a new hottie.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “If everyone wrote fiction, Freud would have never messed with dream analysis.”

      I don’t know if I’d go that far, but certainly fictional analysis is a deep and fascinating ancillary.

  7. Thank you for a very thoughtful and inspiring post, lots to reflect on

  8. I thank you so much for your revealing blog. For quite some time I have realized that my characters, yes, my protagonists keep coming back in different ways in my two novels and one to be published, another in the making. They are Amina, Adela, Mara and Samira. They act out one archetypal behaviour: they all flee, leave, run or are taken away by fate. Thank you so much for your work. It’s great!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Interesting. I’ve noticed similar patterns with my characters as well. (Pretty names, BTW!)

  9. Thanks, I have learned so much from you. You teach as much about how to live a good life as you do about becoming a better author, dragging the creativity out and exposing best parts of the soul using the written word. I enjoy listening to you. Keep well during this shutdown picture. I sense the sunlight will appear just any minute from now.

  10. Sorry, KM, but in my opinion, until the writer loses all awareness of the self…his characters will never come to life.
    The Brush is the Writer; The Colors are Emotions; The Palette…your Imagination; The Characters…the Canvas

  11. Thank you so much for this post. Really helpful with things I have been struggling with.

  12. In “The Last of the Belles” movie starring Richard Chamberlain as F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife, the infamous Zelda took pity on him because, in her opinion, he kept “writing their story over and over in the hopes that he’d get it to come out right in the end” (paraphrased). I have so much to draw on from my own life, it scares me, but I’ve found that once I’ve poured my soul onto the page and cleansed the past, I can move on to other characters, other settings. Still, what each of us has lived through is raw and real, and I think we need to put that in print so others can survive as well. We all draw from who we are and who we hope to be or, sadly, who we wish we’d been. As writers, we were born observers – I think it’s a waste if we don’t take those threads of our life and create a tapestry others can get lost in. As for creativity vs logic, I’m a pantser – logic is a last resort, but I find it keeps me honest.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “What each of us has lived through is raw and real, and I think we need to put that in print so others can survive as well.”

      I love this so much.

  13. I have been dealing with fighting the ‘two sides’ of me for a long time; thinking and analyzing, check my ‘dream book’ for clues, and forever asking myself: Why did I do what I did? Why did I not fight back? Why did I always give in? I told myself it was ‘the noble’ thing to do – but my soul kept screaming. It still does. Now, that I have written my WWII memoir, “We Don’t Talk About That” and the sequel “Flight Into The Unknown,” I realize that I have always done what I needed to do to survive. Physically, I did – emotionally? Reading my own books, especially the “Flight…” one, I wish I would have had the guts to follow through with what my guts told me, but I didn’t want to ‘hurt’ anyone. How much I hurt myself is only coming to the surface Now. And reading your post not only once, I agree with you, feel your own pain, realize that you, just like me, have tried to ‘hide’ more of yourself. Hide it from others – and also from yourself. After finishing my memoirs, I stand here, naked, and still asked myself, “Who am I? Who is this person, I don’t know her.”

  14. So true! I recognize myself in my stories and characters, even when I pretend not to notice. I’m usually anxious when I start a writing session. I’m afraid of what’s going to be revealed. Your words are a reminder to just let it all out. Edit later.

  15. ingmarhek says

    “Just as in dream analysis, it is useful to remember that every character is you. The wounded warrior, the damsel in distress, the sadistic villain—each represents a facet of your psychological landscape.”

    That sentence gave me so much to think about. All those shy characters stepping out of their comfort zone and having adventures? All those revenge-thirsty characters learning to forgive? All those anarchistic warriors? They are me???

    Great post, K.

  16. Hi K,If I may use K.
    Is it not the writer’s job to grasp the reader by the heart strings and tug each one at the right time, throughout your story, so at the end the reader is completly drained and/or over flowing with emotion no mater if its the same characters or not?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely. As Willa Cather says, “There are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened before.”

  17. Casandra Merritt says

    Sounds like Smeagol and Gollum to me!

  18. Thank you so much for this post! When I read the sentence, “Consider your characters,” I stopped to think for a few minutes and realized that one character who I thought was completely unlike anything I’d created before was really a new variation on an old theme of unlikely heroes and underdogs. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and for being courageous enough to share your struggles as well!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s cool! It’s always interesting to discover these patterns. Sometimes they reveal surprising things about ourselves.

  19. I always find myself in my stories, although sometimes it’s the one person I didn’t want to be. But the gift of telling and the treasure of seeing it exposed is the admittance and acceptance of who I am or, in many cases who I “was”.
    This is a beauty of an article and so appreciated by writers. Whatever you went through last year, led you to here and now. And gave you the courage, inspiration, and insight to write these words for us.
    I am 67 and just now finding the time and the courage to write and have always believed that where we have been has led us to now, quite possibly to do the best work yet, living the best life.
    Thank you for your honesty and wisdom.
    Kay Arthur

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks, Kay. 🙂

      This is so beautifully said:

      “I always find myself in my stories, although sometimes it’s the one person I didn’t want to be. But the gift of telling and the treasure of seeing it exposed is the admittance and acceptance of who I am or, in many cases who I “was”.”

  20. Logical and creative dialogue. I have to work on that. Thanks for this post. I now view story writing differently.😊

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Most of us are stronger in one or the other. Identifying which is the strength gives the opportunity to strengthen the muscle of the other.

  21. I Love this post! Thanks a lot. I have a clearer view now and don’t need to struggle anymore

  22. “We speak- and the page speaks back”. I love this riff on Nietzsche’s “stare into the abyss and the abyss stares back into you.” It takes courage to stare at that white abyss, knowing the only way to stop it from staring back is to cloud its vision with black words.

  23. I used to feel like I couldn’t do anything to make this world a better place. one day, I started writing. this turned into a novel and pretty soon I couldn’t put the pen down. I currently have a long list of stories I want to finish writing! I feel like I found my purpose.

  24. “We speak – and the page speaks back.” You are definitely on to something. In the last five years, both my parents died of Alzheimer’s. In the last five years, my writing has dealt with a young soldier struggling with memory loss, fear, loss of position, and family distance. Clearly he is me, and as I rewrite some of his angry, petty, and selfish spewings, boy am I getting schooled. Thanks for your posts.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Very sorry to hear about your parents. But I’m glad you’re seeking healing on the page!

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